'I could go on all day about what I'm proud of," Tom DeLay exults into his microphone at a recent Oxonian Society-sponsored luncheon in New York to hawk his new memoir, No Retreat, No Surrender. A year after his downfall, DeLay's leathery skin and the loose,papery bags under his eyes make him look old. But the message he delivers to the crowd is energetic and unrepentant: "I'm ... proud of the K Street Strategy. I was proud of the Terri Schiavo incident," he says. And, without irony: "We changed the culture of Washington."
Strangely, the 50 or so sweater-vest-and-pearls types in the room just smile tentatively and push their food around their plates with their forks. I was urged to rsvp for the lunch "very early," since it was sure to be a hot and provocative event. But half the fancy frisee salads in the banquet room have nobody to eat them, and the emcee has to urge the audience to ask questions.
Their indifference reflects DeLay's current position in the world:once larger than life, now a minor curiosity. His era over, the Republican majority he worked so hard to preserve washed away, he has been banished to tussle over his indictment with a mean little Texas judge. But DeLay doesn't see it that way. A clue to his state of mind lies in the original title he wanted for his memoir: "The American Passion of Tom DeLay was my title," he says at the luncheon, even as a blown-up book cover with the other title sits propped beside him. The title may sound grand. But, like Napoleon at Elba, DeLay has a plan to ensure that his era of greatest influence is yet to come.
As soon as he was ushered out of the Capitol last June, DeLay signed up with a Christian motivational speakers' bureau (sample talent: Michael Franzese, who "quit the mob to follow Jesus"), prognosticated on Fox, and even blasted out a mass e-mail to rally support for Sara Evans, a country singer and Republican contestant on "Dancing With the Stars." But, after ten years as House majority whip and leader, he longed to do something more influential. Come fall, he was ringing up old friends, such as K Street Project co-conspirator Grover Norquist and spiritual adviser Reverend Rick Scarborough, to inform them that something very major was about to be unveiled. DeLay now hopes, friends report, nothing less than to rule the conservative grassroots as magisterially as he ruled the House. "He wants to run the outside," says conservative leader Paul Weyrich.
In December, DeLay launched TomDeLay.com, his new conservative blog. DeLay didn't instantly master the pithy form (on Reagan's birthday,he posted an entire 4,000-word Gipper speech) or attract loving fans (he started censoring messages after he received over 100"mean, nasty, ... vulgar" posts during the blog's first hour). But,before long, he was sounding off on 2008 like a pro in a grainy YouTube video produced by a blog called MuscleHead Revolution and"asking a lot of bloggers, right-of-center, to guest-post at TomDeLay.com," says RedState.com CEO Erick Erickson.
But DeLay doesn't just want to become the conservative Kos. He's arranging to become the conservative MoveOn, too. Along with the blog, DeLay inaugurated his new "Grassroots Action/Information Network," whose members are promised, for $52 per year, a place in the ranks of an immense holy militia designed to battle "radical leftist agendas wherever they may be found in the United States"via weekly e-mails, letter-writing drives, and petitions. Even this is not quite enough. A few weeks ago, he announced the addition ofa second grassroots organization: the Coalition for a ConservativeMajority (CCM), which touts itself as the "first such conservative organization worthy of its name." CCM will be a network of intensely involved activists with chapters in all 50 states--and DeLay is its Howard Dean.
If the proliferation of projects sounds slightly manic, it's all in a day's work for the People's Hammer. In the House, DeLay was known for his talent as a marshal, whipping moderates like Chris Shays and extremists like Helen Chenoweth into lockstep. He sees a need for such harsh discipline in the grassroots, whose groups are too disorganized and dispersed. "He wants to do something that will work on all the issues," says Norquist.
But DeLay's mission to save the conservative grassroots isn't driven only by an ideological calling, the fulfillment of the American Passion's prophecy. There's also revenge. The activist troops he's now so eager to captain are the very ones that failed to come to his aid enthusiastically enough when he was under siege a year ago."He was extremely frustrated at the end" of his time in Congress,notes Weyrich, because he "thought that he did not get the kind of support from the outside that he felt he was entitled to." Now DeLay has the chance to take over the grassroots and mold them into an obedient force. Says Weyrich, "He's thinking to himself, 'If I construct an organization. ...'"
The grassroots will be tougher to whip than Republican lawmakers.Several conservative activists told me they find the idea that they need DeLay's training distasteful, as if he were on a mission to civilize savages. "I don't think it'll work, because conservatives are very individualistic, and they don't take well to people dictating to them what they need to do," says one. Even if he does gain a foothold, DeLay isn't the only dethroned Republican lawmaker trying to do so. This week, as DeLay flogs his memoir, Dick Armey--an old Hill nemesis whom DeLay describes as a liar "drunk with ambition"--is holding a rally on Capitol Hill for Freedom Works, his own grassroots movement.
These days, for the Hammer, there's a big gulf between dreams andresults. In a crowded elevator on the way down from the lunch talk,DeLay gabs about the liberal get-out-the-vote 527 America ComingTogether, its thousands of employees in chapters all across thecountry, and how his CCM will be just like it. Has he startedsetting up the chapters? I ask, as we troop into the lobby. "I'vehired these guys," he replies, gesturing to two harried-lookingaides trailing behind him.